The Reader Magazine http://www.readernation.org Thu, 26 Feb 2015 03:19:50 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.1 New Reader: Editor’s Note http://www.readernation.org/the-new-reader-publishers-note/ http://www.readernation.org/the-new-reader-publishers-note/#comments Tue, 17 Feb 2015 23:17:02 +0000 http://www.readernation.org/?p=5402 There is growing concern that resource scarcity may lead to an acceleration of military conflicts this century.  What we are witnessing today in the Ukraine, Nigeria, and the Middle East may broaden into wider conflicts as resources like water become scarcer.

In the last century, in World War II alone, 65 million human beings perished.  Forty-four million were civilians.  It is vitally important to take the time to consider the boundless suffering that number represents if we wish to avoid repeating the same mistakes in this new century.  What can be done to make this new century different?

We must begin to take a greater interest in understanding the resources– like water– that drive conflict. With that knowledge we”ll be less indifferent to how life-sustaining resources work, who or what may be driving the problems, and what needs to change.

“What can be done” will be ultimately answered by our collective decision of what we want our lives to stand for.  Will our life amount to a few trophies and some measure of power, however indifferent we had to be to get these things?  Or will our lives stand for something beyond ourselves, that contributes to insuring there is enough for all?

What is water anyway?  A landmark film on the story of water, Blue Gold, begins this way:

In 1906, Pablo Valencia dared the journey from Mexico to California in search of gold. He survived without water for a week…seven days.  He was rescued and documented the experience of thirst.  Saliva becomes thick.  A lump seems to form in the throat.  The tongue swells so large that it squeezes pass the jaws, the throat so swollen that breathing becomes difficult, creating a terrifying sense of drowning.  The face feels flu due to the shrinking of the skin.  Many people begin to hallucinate.  The eyelids crack and the eyeballs begin to weep tears of blood.  When Pablo Valencia was found his skin was like purplish-gray leather, scratched but with no traces of blood.  His lips had disappeared as if amputated.  His nose withered to half its length.  His eyes trapped in a winkless stare.  Saving water is not about saving the environment, it is about savings ourselves.  Because whatever one’s environmental, political or religious opinions, whatever one’s race, sex or economic standing, whoever of us goes without water for a week, cries blood.

Today, the story of water is in part the dramatic conflict between growing understanding of the importance of water, and growing efforts by some to capture ownership of as much water as possible, wherever it may be, and whoever may be effected.

Scientists, economists– not to mention the nearly 1 billion people who lack adequate water– consider water the most valuable and important resource on earth.  This Reader will give you further insight into this live-sustaining resource from some of the brightest thinkers and authors on the subject of water.

Peter Gleik writes, “Solving our water needs will require fundamental changes in how we think about water. It is time to plan for meeting present and future human needs with the water that is available, to determine what desires can be satisfied within the limits of our resources, and to ensure that we preserve the natural ecological cycles that are so integral to human well-being.”

We can survive without oil but no human being can survive without water, which is why it is a major force in the destiny of civilizations, the focus of this issue of The Reader Magazine, and nothing less than the story of the century.

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The Post Office as Public Institution http://www.readernation.org/5395/ http://www.readernation.org/5395/#comments Mon, 09 Feb 2015 22:25:51 +0000 http://www.readernation.org/?p=5395

“When the post office is closed, the flag comes down. When the human side of government closes its doors, we’re all in trouble.”
— Jennings Randolph, Senator from West Virginia 1958-85

For the post office the end game is on. This year the Post Office will close half its processing centers. By late spring a first class letter will take 1-3 days longer to arrive at its destination. By the end of this summer Saturday delivery is scheduled to end. Over the next year the Post Office plans to close over 3000 local post offices while slashing some 220,000 of the its 650,000 employees.

How did we come to this place? In retrospect, it is easy to distinguish three discrete stages in the 221-year life of the Post Office.

Stage 1: The Post Office Has a Broad Public Mandate

The first stage began in 1792 when President George Washington signed legislation making the United States Post Office a Cabinet level Department. It was a public institution with a clear mandate: to enable universal low cost access to information. In its early years this led it to initiate free and low cost delivery of newspapers and eventually, to offer a special rate for periodicals and books.

The post office helped tie the country together physically as well as intellectually. Post roads were essential to the early development of the country. Rural free delivery established in the late 19th century, spurred improvements in roads and bridges since the post office would not offer service where roads were bad. In the 20th century mail contracts underwrote the embryonic aviation industry.

In the 1820s, when private companies began charging a handsome fee to deliver information faster, enabling cotton speculators to make a killing on the difference in prices at the docks of New York and the plantations of Alabama, the post office responded by establishing its own express mail service. The private sector complained. A Congressional investigation concluded “(T)he Government should not hesitate to adopt means…to place the community generally in possession of the same intelligence at as early a period as practicable.”

In the 1840s, when the private sector began siphoning off the most profitable mail routes, leaving to the post office only money losing routes, Congress gave the post office a monopoly, enabling it to dramatically reduce the price of postage and initiate free door to door delivery in cities. In 1858 the first mailboxes appeared on street corners.

At the end of the 19th century, when private parcel companies began treating their customers badly, the post office introduced parcel post. The competition resulted in reduced prices and improved customer service.

In the 1890s and early 1900s financial panics and the closures of hundreds of banks led the post office to introduce postal savings banks. At its peak after World War II postal banks had over 4 million accounts and deposits exceeding $3.3 billion.

Stage 2: The Post Office Becomes a Public-Private Institution

But after World War II the Post Office’s inability to borrow money and invest long term coupled with the dramatic increase in the volume of mail put an increasing strain on its system. In 1966 the mail system in Chicago literally collapsed under an avalanche of mail. Which led LBJ to appoint a Commission to study the future of the post office. The Commission’s Chairman, retired CEO Frederick R. Kappel, envisioned a more corporatized post office. . Indeed, in testimony before Congress Kappel revealed his ultimate goal, “if I could, I’d make (the post office) a private enterprise…and the country would be better off financially. But I can’t get from here to there.”

In the l950s low paid postal workers often moonlighted to make ends meet. It took 21 years for an entry-level worker to reach the maximum wage level. Strikes were illegal. Workers demonstrated, lobbied and even held prayer services to publicize their plight.

In 1970 Congress voted itself a pay raise while stalling postal wage increases, sparking a wildcat strike by letter carriers in New York City. Other postal workers honored the picket lines and the strike spread throughout the nation. President Nixon sent in 25,000 National Guard and Army troops to attempt, unsuccessfully for the most part, to sort and deliver the mail.

The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 was a compromise between management and labor. Unions were given the right to collectively bargain over wages and hours and working conditions for the first time. Wages increased significantly. For the first time, postal work became a middle class job for hundreds of thousands, many of them minorities.

For management the Act gave the new quasi-public corporation now called the United States Postal Service (USPS) the right to borrow money and make long-term investments. In return Congress eliminated taxpayer subsidies, which amounted to 25 percent of the budget in 1971 (about $18 billion in current dollars) and demanded the USPS act more like a business.

Largely as a result of huge capital improvements, productivity soared. In 1966 Fortune Magazine credited USPS with improving its service more than any other company or agency in America. In 1997 audits by Price Waterhouse found on time delivery at 92%. The postal service was by far the most popular public agency. And between 1995 and 1997 postal operations produced a surplus of $4.6 billion.

But the tension between the public mission of the post office and the demand that it act more like a business, continued to grow. Management tried to close post offices and raised the possibility of ending Saturday service as early as the 1980s, leading Congress to pass laws forbidding the latter and significantly restricting the former. Under President Clinton, the Postal Service began contracting out services. Today contracts comprise about 20 percent of its operating budget or $12 billion.

In 2000 the USPS began a formal partnership with FedEx and later UPS. FedEx provides air service for USPS parcels domestically as well as providing international logistics. In 2011 Alan Robinson Executive Director of the Center for the Study of the Postal Market determined that the USPS delivers 30.4 percent of FedEx ground shipments. The USPS Fed Ex partnership is known as SmartPost. The USPS UPS partnership is known as UPS Basic or UPS Mail innovations. These may be the fastest growing parts of their businesses.

Stage 3: The Dismantling of the Post Office

The third and current part of the life of the post office began in 2006 with the passage of the highly misleadingly titled Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act.

A bit of background is necessary to understand this historic piece of legislation. In 2001 the GAO placed the Postal Service on its High Risk list because of concerns about its economic future given the poor management labor relations and increased competition from electronic mail. At the request of Congress and the GAO the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) conducted a review of the Postal Service’s liability to the Civil Service Retirement System. Almost everyone expected OPM to discover huge liabilities. Instead, it concluded the USPS had overfunded its pension plan by more than $70 billion. In 2003 the GAO raised the estimated overfunding to more than $100 billion.

In a sane world the USPS would have been able to use these funds to expand services, pay down existing debt, and invest in new technology. But Washington is anything but sane. The USPS is considered part of the unified budget used for scoring purposes to estimate any legislation’s impact on the deficit. If the USPS were to tap into its surplus funds it would increase the overall federal deficit. For three years Congress debated what to do. Finally, in 2006 it passed a law that requires the Postal Service to pre-pay its health insurance fund by depositing an additional $5 billion a year for the next 10 years into the insurance fund to offset for the phantom accounting deficit under the unified budget. No other public or private agency is required to do anything remotely comparable.

In 2007, unsurprisingly, the USPS suffered a $5 billion deficit. Today that deficit is over $20 billion and is used to justify the death of the post office by amputation of its work force, its processing centers, and its local offices.

The 2006 law also specifically prohibited USPS from offering new products that would create “an unfair or otherwise inappropriate competitive advantage for the Postal Service…”

Elaine C. Kamarck of Harvard Kennedy School of Government has observed the essential contradiction in Congress’s attitude toward the post office from the very beginning of its new life as a corporation. “Congress wants it to be self-sufficient but doesn’t want it to make money.”

“For example, in the mid-1970s the post office was told to remove copy machines from post offices under pressure from lobbyists representing office equipment stores who feared that USPS was taking away its business. Later when the USPS initiated a “Pack and Send” service, the outcry from Mailboxes Etc. and other private packing stores successfully challenged the service. Years later, when Internet shopping took off, the delivery of packages to individual households should have resulted in a dramatic increase in USPS business. But parcel shipments were generated by large organizations and the was not allowed to negotiate discounts and thus lost business. It was forbidden by law from lowering prices to get more business. This resulted in the entirely incredible situation in the 1990s where the United States Government negotiated an agreement for the delivery of U.S. government package services with Fed Ex because the USPS was not allowed to negotiate for lower prices!”

Where Do We Go From Here?

So here we are, at the end game. Few any longer are even talking about saving the post office as is. Fewer still are talking about resurrecting the post office as an institution with a broad public mission. The debate now focuses on how many parts of the post office we can lop off.

Kevin A. Hassett then director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute has written, “The Postal Service owns or operates 33,000 facilities nationwide and owns 219,000 vehicles. If we were to auction it off to private investors, the bids would likely be enormous.”

Tad Dehaven of the Cato Institute insists, “The one size fits all model where you have six days delivery to every home in the country at a fixed price just doesn’t make any economic sense. What I envision is eventually consumers and customers dictate what they want and entrepreneurs figuring out how to satisfy those wants and needs.”

The National Academy of Public Administration will issue a report this spring on what its calls a Thought Leader proposal submitted in January. The 8-page paper urges the post office to be engaged only in last mile delivery and pick up. All other parts of the post office would be sold to private companies. Among the four signatories to the paper, astonishingly, is the Director of Advocacy of the Atlas Institute, dedicated to promoting the writings of Ayn Rand

The post office can and should be saved, but doing so will require a massive grassroots and lobbying effort. It is an effort that could cut across class and race and geography, cutting across rural Republican and big city Democratic districts. Such an effort could educate the American public about five key issues.

First, savings from cutting back postal services are largely illusory, even if we use the narrow cost-benefit analysis used by the USPS. In 2008 the GAO found that the USPS had no way to measure savings from contracting out. Ending Saturday delivery will not save nearly the amount of money the USPS predicts. There are alternatives to closing processing centers that achieve comparable savings.

But we should argue for a wider cost-benefit lens. Remarkably, the post office does not need to take into account the actual cost to the local community of closing a local post office! It does not have to take into account the increased out of pocket costs for people who have to travel longer distances, often on dangerous roads in the winter. The only cost benefit analysis that did bring these community costs into the equation concluded that the out of pocket costs to the community exceed the internal savings to the post office even in the worst-case scenario.

Second, the deficit is illusory. Over 80 percent of the deficit is a result of a phantom accounting system that imposes on the USPS an unprecedented, unparalleled and unfair financial burden.

Third, the post office remains a world-class institution and a remarkable bargain. A first class letter in the United States costs 20-75 percent less than in countries a fraction of our size, like Austria, Germany, Norway, Great Britain, Italy.

Fourth, the universal infrastructure of the post office is of enormous value and could be the foundation not only for it to provide increased services but also to compete with the private sector if it were allowed to do so using the same marketing and pricing tools the private sector uses.

Fifth, the post office plays an important unquantifiable part in American life. In rural areas, the local post office may be the only community gathering place remaining, a place to meet one’s neighbors and share truly local needs and news. In a nation where more than one in five votes are cast by mail and in some states mail ballots have to be received by the close of polls, closing post offices can significantly burden some groups. In Nevada, for example, about half of the 27 Indian tribes rely heavily on the post office to register and to vote and the closure of a post office can effectively strip them of that right.

Closing post offices and delaying the delivery of mail places a significant burden on the most vulnerable of us.

William C. Snodgrass, owner of a USave Pharmacy in North Platte, Nebraska, talked about the end of next day first class delivery to local areas. His store mails hundreds of prescriptions a week to residents in mostly rural areas of the state that lack local pharmacies. If first-class delivery were lengthened to three days and Saturday mail service also were suspended, a resident might not get a shipment mailed on Wednesday until the following week.

“A lot of people in these communities are 65 or 70 years old, and transportation is an issue for them,” said Snodgrass. “It’s impossible for many of my customers to drive 100 miles, especially in the winter, to get the medications they need.”

The Post Office can still be saved. But the grave has been dug. The coffin has been built. And funeral music is in the air. Only the most aggressive effort by the AARP, the NAACP, Consumers Union and other affected constituencies can save this most public of all public institutions.

This article is reposted from Alternet news service.

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Burying Vietnam, Launching Perpetual War http://www.readernation.org/burying-vietnam-launching-perpetual-war/ http://www.readernation.org/burying-vietnam-launching-perpetual-war/#comments Mon, 09 Feb 2015 19:38:44 +0000 http://www.readernation.org/?p=5382 How Thanking the Veteran Meant Ignoring What Happened

The 1960s — that extraordinary decade — is celebrating its 50th birthday one year at a time. Happy birthday, 1965!  How, though, do you commemorate the Vietnam War, the era’s signature catastrophe?  After all, our government prosecuted its brutal and indiscriminate war under false pretexts, long after most citizens objected, and failed to achieve any of its stated objectives.  More than 58,000 Americans were killed along with more than four million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians.

Vietnam War

So what exactly do we write on the jubilee party invitation? You probably know the answer. We’ve been rehearsing it for decades. You leave out every troubling memory of the war and simply say:  “Let’s honor all our military veterans for their service and sacrifice.”

For a little perspective on the 50th anniversary, consider this: we’re now as distant from the 1960s as the young Bob Dylan was from Teddy Roosevelt.  For today’s typical college students, the Age of Aquarius is ancient history.  Most of their parents weren’t even alive in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson launched a massive escalation of the Vietnam War, initiating the daily bombing of the entire country, North and South, and an enormous buildup of more than half a million troops.

In the post-Vietnam decades, our culture has buried so much of the history once considered essential to any debate about that most controversial of all American wars that little of substance remains.  Still, oddly enough, most of the 180 students who take my Vietnam War class each year arrive deeply curious.  They seem to sense that the subject is like a dark family secret that might finally be exposed.  All that most of them know is that the Sixties, the war years, were a “time of turmoil.”  As for Vietnam, they have few cultural markers or landmarks, which shouldn’t be surprising.  Even Hollywood — that powerful shaper of historical memory — stopped making Vietnam movies long ago.  Some of my students have stumbled across old films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon, but it’s rare for even one of them to have seen either of the most searing documentaries made during that war, In the Year of the Pig and Hearts and Minds.  Such relics of profound antiwar fervor simply disappeared from popular memory along with the antiwar movement itself.

Vietnam War

On the other hand, there is an advantage to the fact that students make it to that first class without strong convictions about the war.  It means they can be surprised, even shocked, when they learn about the war’s wrenching realities and that’s when real education can begin.  For example, many students are stunned to discover that the U.S. government, forever proclaiming its desire to spread democracy, actually blocked Vietnam’s internationally sanctioned reunification election in 1956 because of the near certainty that Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh would be the overwhelming winner.

They’re even more astonished to discover the kind of “free-fire zone” bloodshed and mayhem the U.S. military unleashed on the South Vietnamese countryside.  Nothing shocks them more, though, than the details of the My Lai massacre in which American ground troops killed, at close range, more than 500 unarmed, unresisting, South Vietnamese civilians — most of them women, children, and old men — over a four-hour stretch on March 16, 1968.  In high school, many students tell me, My Lai is not discussed.

An American Tragedy

Don’t think that young students are the only products of a whitewashed history of the Vietnam War.  Many older Americans have also been affected by decades of distortion and revision designed to sanitize an impossibly soiled record.  The first step in the cleansing process was to scrub out as much memory as possible and it began even before the U.S.-backed regime in South Vietnam collapsed in 1975.  A week before the fall of Saigon, President Gerald Ford was already encouraging citizens to put aside a war that was “finished as far as America is concerned.”  A kind of willful amnesia was needed, he suggested, to “regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam.”

At that moment, forgetting made all the sense in the world since it seemed unimaginable, even to the president, that Americans would ever find a positive way to remember the war — and little wonder.  Except for a few unapologetic former policymakers like Walt Rostow and Henry Kissinger, virtually everyone, whatever their politics, believed that it had been an unmitigated disaster.  In 1971, for example, a remarkable 58% of the public told pollsters that they thought the conflict was “immoral,” a word that most Americans had never applied to their country’s wars.

How quickly times change.  Jump ahead a decade and Americans had already found an appealing formula for commemorating the war.  It turned out to be surprisingly simple: focus on us, not them, and agree that the war was primarily an American tragedy.  Stop worrying about the damage Americans had inflicted on Vietnam and focus on what we had done to ourselves.  Soon enough, President Ronald Reagan and his followers were claiming that the war had been disastrous mainly because it had weakened an American sense of pride and patriotism, while inhibiting the nation’s desire to project power globally.  Under Reagan, “Vietnam” became a rallying cry for both a revived nationalism and militarism.

Though liberals and moderates didn’t buy Reagan’s view that Vietnam had been a “noble” and winnable war, they did generally support a growing belief that would, in the end, successfully supplant lingering antiwar perspectives and focus instead on a process of national “healing.”  At the heart of that new creed was the idea that our own veterans were the greatest victims of the war and that their wounds were largely a consequence of their shabby treatment by antiwar protestors upon returning from the battle zone to an unwelcoming home front.  Indeed, it became an article of faith that the most shameful aspect of the Vietnam War was the nation’s failure to embrace and honor its returning soldiers.

Of course, there was a truth to the vet-as-victim belief.  Vietnam veterans had, in fact, been horribly ill-treated.  Their chief abuser, however, was their own government, which first lied to them about the causes and nature of the war, then sent them off to fight for an unpopular, dictatorial regime in a land where they were widely regarded as foreign invaders.  Finally, on their return, it failed to provide them with either adequate support or benefits.

And corporate America was also to blame.  Employers were reluctant to hire or train them, in many cases scared off by crude 1970s media stereotypes about wacko, drug-addled, and violent vets.  Nor did traditional veterans’ organizations like the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars provide a warm welcome to those coming home from a deeply contested and unpopular war filled with disillusioned soldiers.

The Antiwar Movement Dispatched to the Trash Bin of History

In the 1980s, however, the Americans most saddled with blame for abusing Vietnam veterans were the antiwar activists of the previous era.  Forget that, in its later years, the antiwar movement was often led by and filled with antiwar vets.  According to a pervasive postwar myth, veterans returning home from Vietnam were commonly accused of being “baby killers” and spat upon by protestors.  The spat-upon story — wildly exaggerated, if not entirely invented — helped reinforce the rightward turn in American politics in the post-Vietnam era.  It was a way of teaching Americans to “honor” victimized veterans, while dishonoring the millions of Americans who had fervently worked to bring them safely home from war.  In this way, the most extraordinary antiwar movement in memory was discredited and dispatched to the trash bin of history.

In the process, something new happened.  Americans began to treat those who served the country as heroic by definition, no matter what they had actually done.  This phenomenon first appeared in another context entirely.  In early 1981, when American diplomats and other personnel were finally released from 444 days of captivity in Iran, the former hostages were given a hero’s welcome for the ages.  There was a White House party, ticker-tape parades, the bestowal of season tickets to professional sporting events, you name it.  This proved to be where a new definition of “heroism” first took root.  Americans had once believed that true heroes took great risks on behalf of noble ideals.  Now, they conferred such status on an entire group of people who had simply survived a horrible ordeal.

To do so next with Vietnam veterans, and indeed with every soldier or veteran who followed in their footsteps seemed like a no-brainer. It was such an easy formula to apply in a new, far more cynical age.  You no longer had to believe that the missions American “heroes” fought were noble and just; you could simply agree that anyone who “served America” in whatever capacity automatically deserved acclaim.

By the time the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was opened on Washington’s Mall in 1982, a consensus had grown up around the idea that, whatever you thought about the Vietnam War, all Americans should honor the vets who fought in it, no matter what any of them had done.  Memorial planners helped persuade the public that it was possible to “separate the warrior from the war.”  As the black granite wall of the Memorial itself so vividly demonstrated, you could honor veterans without commenting on the war in which they had fought.  In the years to come, that lesson would be repeated so often that it became a bedrock part of the culture.  A classic example was an ad run in 1985 on the 10th anniversary of the war’s end by defense contractor United Technologies:

“Let others use this occasion to explain why we were there, what we accomplished, what went wrong, and who was right. We seek here only to draw attention to those who served… They fought not for territorial gain, or national glory, or personal wealth.  They fought only because they were called to serve… whatever acrimony lingers in our consciousness… let us not forget the Vietnam veteran.”

Since the attacks of 9/11, ritualized support for troops and veterans, more symbolic than substantive, has grown ever more common, replete with yellow ribbons, airport greetings, welcome home ceremonies, memorial highways, honor flights, benefit concerts, and ballgame flyovers.  Through it all, politicians, celebrities, and athletes constantly remind us that we’ve never done enough to demonstrate our support.

Perhaps some veterans do find meaning and sustenance in our endless thank-yous, but others find them hollow and demeaning.  The noble vet is as reductive a stereotype as the crazy vet, and repeated empty gestures of gratitude foreclose the possibility of real dialogue and debate.  “Thank you for your service” requires nothing of us, while “Please tell me about your service” might, though we could then be in for a disturbing few hours.  As two-tour Afghan War veteran Rory Fanning has pointed out, “We use the term hero in part because it makes us feel good and in part because it shuts soldiers up… Thank yous to heroes discourage dissent, which is one reason military bureaucrats feed off the term.”

13 Years’ Worth of Commemorating the Warriors

Although a majority of Americans came to reject the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq in proportions roughly as high as in the Vietnam era, the present knee-jerk association between military service and “our freedom” inhibits thinking about Washington’s highly militarized policies in the world.  And in 2012, with congressional approval and funding, the Pentagon began institutionalizing that Vietnam “thank you” as a multi-year, multi-million-dollar “50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam War.”  It’s a thank-you celebration that is slated to last 13 years until 2025, although the emphasis is on the period from Memorial Day 2015 to Veterans Day 2017.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the Pentagon’s number-one objective is “to thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War” in “partnership” with more than 10,000 corporations and local groups which are “to sponsor hometown events to honor Vietnam veterans, their families, and those who were prisoners of war and missing in action.”  Additional goals include: “to pay tribute to the contributions made on the home front” (presumably not by peace activists) and “to highlight the advances in technology, science, and medicine related to military research conducted during the Vietnam War.” (It’s a little hard to imagine quite what that refers to though an even more effective Agent Orange defoliant or improved cluster bombs come to mind.)

Since the Pentagon realizes that, however hard you try, you can’t entirely “separate the warrior from the war,” it is also seeking “to provide the American public with historically accurate materials and interactive experiences that will help Americans better understand and appreciate the service of our Vietnam veterans and the history of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.”  However, it turns out that “accuracy” and “appreciation” can both be served only if you carefully scrub that history clean of untoward incidents and exclude all the under-appreciators, including the thousands of American soldiers who became so disgusted with the war that they turned on their officers, avoided or refused combat missions, deserted in record numbers, and created the most vibrant antiwar GI and veterans movement in our history.

Vietnam War

The most ambitious of the “educational resources” provided on the Vietnam War Commemoration website is an “interactive timeline.”  As other historians have demonstrated, this historical cavalcade has proven to be a masterwork of disproportion, distortion, and omission.  For example, it offers just three short sentences on the “killings” at My Lai (the word “massacre” does not appear) and says that the officer who led Charlie Company into the village, Lt. William Calley, was “sentenced to life in prison” without adding that he was paroled by President Richard Nixon after just three-and-a-half years under house arrest.

That desperately inadequate description avoids the most obviously embarrassing question: How could such a thing happen?  It is conveniently dropped onto a page that includes lengthy official citations of seven American servicemen who received Medals of Honor. The fact that antiwar Senator Robert Kennedy entered the presidential race on the same day as the My Lai massacre isn’t even mentioned, nor his assassination three months later, nor the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., just weeks after My Lai, an event that spurred bitter and bloody racial clashes on U.S. military bases throughout South Vietnam and the world.

It should not go unnoticed that the same government that is spending $65 million commemorating the veterans of a once-reviled war has failed to provide sufficient medical care for them.  In 2014, news surfaced that the Veterans Administration had left some 100,000 veterans waiting for medical attention and that some VA hospitals sought to cover up their egregious delays.  Every day an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide, and among vets of Iraq and Afghanistan the suicide rate, according to one study, is 50% higher than that of their civilian peers.

The Pentagon’s anniversary commemoration has triggered some heated push-back from groups like Veterans for Peace and the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee (co-founded by Tom Hayden).  Both are planning alternative commemorations designed to include antiwar perspectives once so common but now glaringly absent from popular memory.  From such efforts might come the first full public critical reappraisal of the war to challenge four decades of cosmetic makeover.

Unfortunately, in our twenty-first-century American world of permanent war, rehashing Vietnam may strike many as irrelevant or redundant.  If so, it’s likely that neither the Pentagon’s commemoration nor the antiwar counter-commemorations will get much notice.  Perhaps the most damaging legacy of the post-Vietnam era lies in the way Americans have learned to live in a perpetual “wartime” without war being part of daily consciousness.  While public support for Washington’s war policies is feeble at best, few share the Vietnam era faith that they can challenge a war-making machine that seems to have a life of its own.

Last year, U.S. Special Operations forces conducted secret military missions in 133 countries and are on pace to beat that mark in 2015, yet these far-flung commitments go largely unnoticed by the major media and most citizens.  We rely on 1% of Americans “to protect our freedoms” in roughly 70% of the world’s countries and at home, and all that is asked of us is that we offer an occasional “thank you for your service” to people we don’t know and whose wars we need not spend precious time thinking about.

From the Vietnam War, the Pentagon and its apologists learned fundamental lessons about how to burnish, bend, and bury the truth. The results have been devastating. The fashioning of a bogus American tragedy from a real Vietnamese one has paved the way for so many more such tragedies, from Afghanistan to Iraq, Pakistan to Yemen, and — if history is any guide — an unknown one still emerging, no doubt from another of those 133 countries.

Christian Appy, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, is the author of three books about the Vietnam War, including the just-published American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (Viking).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

 

 

 

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Michael Hudson on the New Federal Budget http://www.readernation.org/michael-hudson-pensions-cut-in-federal-budget/ http://www.readernation.org/michael-hudson-pensions-cut-in-federal-budget/#comments Mon, 09 Feb 2015 15:31:39 +0000 http://www.readernation.org/?p=5378

On the Senate’s last day in session in December, it approved the government’s $1.1 trillion budget for coming fiscal year.

Few people realize how radical the new U.S. budget law was. Budget laws are supposed to decide simply what to fund and what to cut. A budget is not supposed to make new law, or to rewrite the law. But that is what happened, and it was radical.

Wall Street’s representatives in Congress – the Democratic leadership as well as Republicans – took the opportunity to create an artificial crisis. The press called this “holding the government hostage.” The House – backed by the Senate – said that it would shut the government down at some future date if two basic laws were not changed.

Most of the attention has been paid to Elizabeth Warren’s eloquent attack on the government guaranteeing bank trades in derivatives. Written by Citigroup lobbyists, this puts taxpayer funds behind future bank bailouts if banks make more bad bets on complex financial derivatives, such as packaged junk mortgage loans.

Critics have focused on how there must be a loser for every winner in a derivatives contract. The problem is that if banks lose, the government will bail them out just as it did in 2008.

Less attention has been paid to what happens if banks win. They will win largely in making bets against pension funds. Indeed, pension funds have not been treated well by Wall Street in recent years.

They are in a bind. Pension funds will fall further and further behind what they need to pay retirees if they do not make the impossibly high returns of 8.5%. The guiding philosophy of pension funds has been that instead of making employers pay enough to cover the pensions they have promised, funds can make money purely financially – by Wall Street sharpies.

The problem is that safe interest rates today are less than 1% for Treasury bonds. Everything else – stocks, corporate bonds, and hedge fund derivatives – are much more risky. And when Goldman Sachs, or JP Morgan Chase draw up a derivative for a client, their aim is to make money for themselves, not for the client.

So pension funds have been at the losing end. Most funds would have done better simply to turn their money over to Vanguard in an indexed fund, and saved management fees.

At the state and local levels, pension funds in New Jersey and other states threaten to go the way of Detroit pension funds – to be cut back so that bondholders can be paid.

Many corporate pension funds also are behind, because companies are using their record profits to pay higher dividends and to buy back their stocks to create price gains for speculators.

But the funds most under attack are union pension funds. These are the funds that Congress has gone after. The fight is not merely to scale back pension funds – and avoid the government’s Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp (PBGC) being bailed out – but to break the power of unions to attract members or to defend them.

The recent Congressional budget act states that pension funds with more than one employer – such as construction industry funds, teamster funds for truckers and public service workers funds – can be scaled back in order to pay Wall Street creditors.

Labor now is told to go to the back of the line behind Wall Street. If the economy is too debt strapped to pay everyone what is owed, then the new motto is Big Fish Eat Little Fish.

Wall Street is eating the pension funds.

This goes hand in hand with Obama’s fight to scale back Social Security and, ultimately, to privatize it. Now that Republicans are in a majority of both the House and Senate, the Democrats will be able to take an anti-labor position and then try to blame it on Republicans.

Yet Democrats themselves were the leading advocates of the anti-labor, anti-pension fund policy. This special “rider” to the budget bill was known last spring to the House Budget Committee. Yet something tricky happened: While the committee approved the anti-labor pension rule, no record was taken of which members and which party voted for the radical change, and who opposed it.

For instance, Marcy Kaptur, who replaced Dennis Kucinich from Cleveland after the Democrats helped the Republicans gerrymander his district, said that she should remember who voted which way on the House Appropriations Committee she served on.

So this is the problem: the supposedly liberal Democrats are in the lead for scaling back pension funding, Social Security and labor protection in general.

Here’s an indication of how bad the situation is. Pension funds – union pension funds as well as corporate pension funds – are supposed to be backed up by the PBGC. But that agency has been headed by a former Lazard Freres investment banker, Joshua Gotbaum. He’s now at the Democratic Party’s pro-Wall Street think tank to refine their anti-pension policies. He has explained to the press that he wants to “save” pensions – by scaling them back.

This is the new Orwellian anti-labor rhetoric. “Saving” pensions means reducing what workers were promised – back when they negotiated lower wage gains in exchange for greater retirement security.

The new law permits pension plan trustees – often Wall Street financiers – to cut benefits without having to ask the PBGC to take over the plan. This “balances the federal budget” by saving the bailout funds for Wall Street, not for labor.

The problem is that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974 — vastly underpriced the contributions that employers would have to make in order to pay retirees. The problem was designed to fail from the beginning, because Wall Street and corporate lobbyists fought to underfund the program. They knew from the very beginning that pensions would fail in the end.

Yet at the same time, the law stated that benefits already earned by workers cannot be cut back. But last December’s Congressional budgetary coup d’état ruled that now, employee retirement benefits can indeed be cut back. Retiree claims are not treated on the same level as financial debts to Wall Street investors. They are sent to the bottom of the line of claimants.

Their strategy is basically Malthusian: to blame the pension problem on the fact that America is de-industrializing, leaving not enough new union members to pay the dues that are necessary to pay retirees. This is because the pensions were designed to be a Ponzi scheme from the outset – needing new contributors to pay the early entrants.

This is of course the argument that President Obama is making regarding the need to cut back Social Security too.

This turns out to be the big picture at work for the next two years. Outside of Wall Street, the economy is not really growing. Obama is escalating military spending in his heating-up confrontation with Russia and China, and that will take a large part of the budget. More bailouts and subsidies for Wall Street over their derivatives bets – the rule that Senator Warren criticized – will eat up more government revenue.

So something must give – and the PBGC is one of the designated victims. The aim is to avoid government help for pension funds in arrears – and nearly all funds are in arrears, because of the basically malstructured idea of making money financially instead of helping the economy actually grow by investing to produce more goods and services and raise living standards.

Congress has just legislated the right to scale back pension funds if they’re managed by labor unions, e.g. on multi-employer contributors. This will hit blue collar labor the hardest, especially unionized building superintendents, and service workers.

Once this is done, the idea of rolling back pensions can spread to other kinds of pension funds besides union funds. State and local pensions, corporate pensions and even insurance company annuities can be cut back.

And the great aim at the end is to privatize Social Security.

Scaling back labor union and corporate pension funds will enable Wall Street propagandists to come out and say, “See, the only way you can be safe is to have your own private accounts, and manage your own money.”

The problem with this approach is that “managing our own money” turns out to be deciding which Wall Street firm is going to manage it – and of course, they manage it in their own interest first and foremost. They do this by raking high management fees that keep most of the returns for their own salaries and bonuses. In the end, the place their clients funds in bad bets.

The great argument for having Wall Street manage pension funds instead of labor union economists or their own people is that the mafia is strong in many unions. That’s indeed the case. In 1982 a federal consent degree stripped the Teamsters of its power to control its investments. The assumption was that if labor unions are crooked, then Wall Street must be more honest, is absurd. It’s basically one set of financial predators against another set.

Here’s how Prudential Insurance became notorious for ripping off the funds of clients it managed, for instance. It might make two bets on a given day: one, that a stock or bond would go up, and two that it would go down. At the end of the day it would put the winning bet in its own account, and the losing bet in the account of its clients.

This is how crooked commodity traders have worked for many decades. In Ghana, for instance, the cocoa commission traders would place two bets: one, that cocoa prices would rise, and two, that they would fall. They kept the winning bet for themselves or their family members; the losing bet would be placed on the government’s balance sheet.

In a nutshell, this is how Wall Street has been treating pension funds. This is why Orange County, California, sued Wall Street, and why other cities have sued Wall Street firms over mismanagement that have led to huge losses for their funds – and super gains for Wall Street at the other end of these trades. The idea of “fiduciary responsibility” is no longer enforced, now that Obama’ Justice Department has made it clear that it is not going to charge large Wall Street banks and their brokerage arms with criminal fraud. The gates are now wide open for such fraud, as Bill Black has described.

With this in mind, now let’s go back to the new Congressional budget law. It gives priority to debts owed to Wall Street; debts to labor now will go to the back of the line, and be scaled down so as to pay corporate raiders and banks.

The first great test case is expected to be the Teamsters’ Central States Fund. The rationale for cutting back pensions for drivers is that in 1980 it had four employees for every retiree. Today, it has just one driver for every five retirees. How can such a plan succeed?

The normal answer would be, by turning to the PBGC.

But let’s look more closely at the alleged source of the problem. It’s not just that there are so fewer employees per retiree. The Teamsters Central States Fund is a prime example of Wall Street mismanagement. Goldman Sachs, Northern Trust and other firms make the decisions, not the Fund’s own board. A recent report has found that “Roughly a third of the pension system’s shortfalls – or almost $9 billion – can be traced to investment losses accrued during the financial industry’s 2008 collapse. These losses were in addition to more than $250 million in fees paid by the plan to financial firms in just the last 5 years.”

Obviously there is as much conflict of interest at work in letting Wall Street sharpies manage pension funds as there is in letting Mafiosi rip them off.

The important thing is that the PBGC has been as lax in oversight as the Federal Reserve has been lax in overseeing the banking system. But whereas the Fed then bailed out the banks in 2008 on the ground that they were systemically necessary for the economy to function, no such assumption is being made with regard to labor’s pensions.

It seems part of a long-term strategy to cut back pensions, privatize them into individual accounts managed by Wall Street investment banks and insurance companies, and then to privatize Social Security.

This is part of the strategy to use the demand for budgetary balance to privatize the nations’ infrastructure too as it falls apart – on the ground that the government is broke, and cannot raise taxes on the rich or simply print the money itself to fuel economic growth.

It looks like Greece may be the test case for where the American economy is heading.


Michael Hudson is a former Wall Street economist. A Distinguished Research Professor at University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC), he is the author of many books, including Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire (new ed., Pluto Press, 2002) and Trade, Development and Foreign Debt: A History of Theories of Polarization v. Convergence in the World Economy. His book summarizing his economic theories, The Bubble and Beyond, is now available. His latest book is Finance Capitalism and Its Discontents. His upcoming book is titled Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy. He can be reached via his website, mh@michael-hudson.com.

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State of the Union Omission: Nobel Laureates Say it’s 3 Minutes to Midnight http://www.readernation.org/state-of-the-union-the-omission-that-its-3-minutes-to-midnight/ http://www.readernation.org/state-of-the-union-the-omission-that-its-3-minutes-to-midnight/#comments Mon, 02 Feb 2015 18:13:03 +0000 http://www.readernation.org/?p=5368

When President Obama first took office he was deeply concerned about nuclear disarmament. In 2009, in a speech in Prague he had this to say about nuclear weapons:

Today, the Cold War has disappeared but thousands of those weapons have not. In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. Black market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound. The technology to build a bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build or steal one. Our efforts to contain these dangers are centered on a global non-proliferation regime, but as more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold.

He also said at Prague:

So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. (Applause.) I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, “Yes, we can.” (Applause.)

us-presidential-sealWe might well ask not only what happened to “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” but what happened to President Obama’s commitment?

In President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union Address, the only mention of nuclear weapons was in relation to the agreement the Obama administration is seeking to negotiate with Iran. The President promised to veto any additional sanctions placed on Iran, which he said would undermine the negotiations between the US and Iran to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. President Obama also expressed considerable concern for the dangers of climate change, a clear danger to the environment and the future. But there was no mention in the State of the Union of “America’s commitment” to nuclear disarmament.

President Obama’s early concerns for nuclear disarmament led to his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, but he seems to have given up his pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons. He does so to the detriment of all Americans and all people of the world. Nuclear weapons are equal opportunity destroyers – women, men and children. Under Obama’s leadership, America is setting a course to modernize its nuclear infrastructure, weapons and delivery systems. Not only is the expected price tag for the US nuclear modernization program expected to exceed $1 trillion over the next three decades, but such a program endangers all Americans rather than providing them with security.

In a recent article in The Nation, Theodore Postol, a MIT professor emeritus of science, technology and national security policy, argued, “No rational actor would take steps to start a nuclear war. But the modernization effort significantly increases the chances of an accident during an unpredicted, and unpredictable, crisis – one that could escalate beyond anyone’s capacity to imagine.” Postol concluded, “In a world that is fundamentally unpredictable, the pursuit of an unchallenged capacity to fight and win a nuclear war is a dangerous folly.”

Mr. President, we live in an unpredictable world, but it is predictable based on history that nuclear weapons and human fallibility are a dangerous and highly flammable mix. Nuclear weapons, including our own, threaten all Americans and all humanity. Don’t give up on the essential quest for a Nuclear Zero world, which you seemed so eager to achieve upon assuming office.



The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has just announced its latest nuclear Doomsday Clock moving ahead the minute hand to three minutes till midnight. The clock represents the count down to zero in minutes to nuclear apocalypse – midnight. This significant move of TWO minutes is the 22nd time since its inception in 1947 that the time has been changed.

In moving the hand to 3 minutes to midnight, Kennette Benedict the Executive Director of the Bulletin, identified in her comments: “the probability of global catastrophe is very high”… “the choice is ours and the clock is ticking”…”we feel the need to warn the world” …”the decision was based on a very strong feeling of urgency”. She spoke to the dangers of both nuclear weapons and climate change saying, “they are both very difficult and we are ignoring them” and emphasized “this is about doomsday, this is about the end of civilization as we know it”. The Clock has ranged from 2 minutes to midnight at the height of the Cold War to 17 minutes till midnight with the hopes that followed the end of the Cold War. The decision to move the minute hand is made by the Bulletin’s Board of Directors in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates.

What is clear is that the time to ban nuclear weapons is now. Today’s announcement by the Bulletin further corroborates the dangers confirmed by recent climate science. These studies identify the much greater dangers posed by even a small regional nuclear war using just 100 Hiroshima size bombs out of the 16,300 weapons in today’s global stockpiles. The ensuing dramatic climate changes and famine that would follow threaten the lives of up to 2 billion on the planet with effects that would last beyond 10 years. There is no escaping the global impact of such a small regional nuclear war.

Medical science has weighed in on the impacts and devastation of even the smallest nuclear explosion in one of our cities and the reality is there is no adequate medical or public health response to such an attack. We kid ourselves into a false sense that we can prepare and plan for the outcome of a bomb detonation. Every aspect and facet of our society would be overwhelmed by a nuclear attack. Ultimately the resultant dead at ground zero would be the lucky ones.

Probability theorists have long calculated the dismal odds that the chance for nuclear event either by plan or accident are not in our favor. Recent documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act detail over 1000 mishaps that have happened in our nuclear arsenals. Time is not on our side and the fact that we have not experienced a nuclear catastrophe is more a result of luck than mastery and control over these immoral weapons of terror.

The time to act is now. There is so much that can and must be done. Congress will soon begin budget debates that include proposals to increase nuclear weapons spending for stockpile modernization by $355 Billion over the next decade and up to a Trillion in the next 30 years. Expenditures for weapons that can never be used and at a time when the economic needs for our country and world are so great.

Around the world, there is a growing awareness of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, and a corresponding desire to rid the world of these weapons.The Vienna Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons conference last month saw 4/5 of the nations of the world participating. In Oct., 2014, at the UN, 155 nations called for the elimination of nuclear weapons. At Vienna, 44 nations plus the pope advocated for a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

The people are making their voices heard and demanding a change of course from the status quo.

In this week’s State of the Union address, President Obama emphasized that we are one people with a common destiny. He said this both in reference to our nation and our world. The threat of nuclear weapons unites us even as it threatens our very existence. This reality can also be remembered in the words of Martin Luther King when he said,

“We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

The time for action is now, before it is too late. It’s 3 minutes till midnight.

Robert Dodge is a family physician practicing full time in Ventura, California. He serves on the board of Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles serving as a Peace and Security Ambassador and at the national level where he sits on the security committee. He also serves on the board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and Citizens for Peaceful Resolutions. He writes for PeaceVoice.

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Water: Liquid Awesome http://www.readernation.org/water-liquid-awesome/ http://www.readernation.org/water-liquid-awesome/#comments Mon, 02 Feb 2015 04:24:05 +0000 http://www.readernation.org/?p=5360

Hank teaches us why water is one of the most fascinating and important substances in the universe.

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Bill and Melinda Gates: Our Big Bet http://www.readernation.org/bill-and-melinda-gates-our-big-bet/ http://www.readernation.org/bill-and-melinda-gates-our-big-bet/#comments Mon, 02 Feb 2015 03:56:54 +0000 http://www.readernation.org/?p=5357

From Bill and Melinda Gates: We see an opportunity and we want to make the most of it.

We’re putting our credibility, time, and money behind this bet — and asking others to join us — because we think there has never been a better time to accelerate progress and have a big impact around the world.

Some will say we’re irrational to make this bet too. A skeptic would look at the world’s problems and conclude that things are only getting worse. And we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a handful of the worst-off countries will continue to struggle.

But we think the next 15 years will see major breakthroughs for most people in poor countries. They will be living longer and in better health. They will have unprecedented opportunities to get an education, eat nutritious food, and benefit from mobile banking. These breakthroughs will be driven by innovation in technology — ranging from new vaccines and hardier crops to much cheaper smartphones and tablets — and by innovations that help deliver those things to more people.

The rich world will keep getting exciting new advances too, but the improvements in the lives of the poor will be far more fundamental — the basics of a healthy, productive life. It’s great that more people in rich countries will be able to watch movies on super hi-resolution screens. It’s even better that more parents in poor countries will know their children aren’t going to die.

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How The Economy Works http://www.readernation.org/5348/ http://www.readernation.org/5348/#comments Mon, 02 Feb 2015 03:00:16 +0000 http://www.readernation.org/?p=5348

In this 30 minute animated piece, Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, explains the fundamentals of economics in a way anyone can understand. It’s a distillation of Ray’s understanding of the global economy, the concepts he’s developed, and the research his firm has conducted — which helped them sidestep the financial crisis and invest successfully for over 30 years.

At it’s essence, the economy works like a machine.

This project was an exciting opportunity to take a rich body of research and work with Ray to distill it down into a 30 minute overview that has something for everyone: from your average person who doesn’t know anything about finance to the sophisticated professional policy maker. I hope that this simple design and storytelling combined with Ray’s economic thinking helps you can understand why we have credit, economic cycles, and financial crises.

Enjoy!

See the research at EconomicPrinciples.org

Video created by Jonathan Jarvis.  See more at www.jonathanjarvis.com!

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EU Showdown: Greece Takes on the Vampire Squid http://www.readernation.org/eu-showdown-greece-takes-on-the-vampire-squid/ http://www.readernation.org/eu-showdown-greece-takes-on-the-vampire-squid/#comments Fri, 30 Jan 2015 20:39:37 +0000 http://www.readernation.org/?p=5326 Greece and the troika (the International Monetary Fund, the EU, and the European Central Bank) are in a dangerous game of chicken. The Greeks have been threatened with a Cyprus-Style prolonged bank holidayif they “vote wrong.” But they have been bullied for too long and are saying “no more.”

A return to the polls was triggered in December, when the Parliament rejected Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ pro-austerity candidate for president. In a general election, now set for January 25th, the EU-skeptic, anti-austerity, leftist Syriza party is likely to prevail. Syriza captured a 3% lead in the polls following mass public discontent over the harsh austerity measures Athens was forced to accept in return for a €240 billion bailout.

Austerity has plunged the economy into conditions worse than in the Great Depression. As Professor Bill Black observes, the question is not why the Greek people are rising up to reject the barbarous measures but what took them so long.

Ireland was similarly forced into an EU bailout with painful austerity measures attached. A series of letters has recently come to light showing that the Irish government was effectively blackmailed into it, with the threat that the ECB would otherwise cut off liquidity funding to Ireland’s banks. The same sort of threat has been leveled at the Greeks, but this time they are not taking the bait.

Squeezed by the Squid

The veiled threat to the Greek Parliament was in a December memo from investment bank Goldman Sachs – the same bank that was earlier blamed for inducing the Greek crisis. Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi wrote colorfully of it:

The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.

Goldman has spawned an unusual number of EU and US officials with dictatorial power to promote and protect big-bank interests. They include US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who brokered the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 and passage of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act in 2000; Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who presided over the 2008 Wall Street bailout; Mario Draghi, current head of the European Central Bank; Mario Monti, who led a government of technocrats as Italian prime minister; and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, chair of the Financial Stability Board that sets financial regulations for the G20 countries.

Goldman’s role in the Greek crisis goes back to 2001. The vampire squid, smelling money in Greece’s debt problems, jabbed its blood funnel into Greek fiscal management, sucking out high fees to hide the extent of Greece’s debt in complicated derivatives. The squid then hedged its bets by shorting Greek debt. Bearish bets on Greek debt launched by heavyweight hedge funds in late 2009 put selling pressure on the euro, forcing Greece into the bailout and austerity measures that have since destroyed its economy.

Before the December 2014 parliamentary vote that brought down the Greek government, Goldman repeated the power play that has long held the eurozone in thrall to an unelected banking elite. In a note titled “From GRecovery to GRelapse,” reprinted on Zerohedge, it warned that “the room for Greece to meaningfully backtrack from the reforms that have already been implemented is very limited.”

Why? Because bank “liquidity” could be cut in the event of “a severe clash between Greece and international lenders.” The central bank could cut liquidity or not, at its whim; and without it, the banks would be insolvent.

As the late Murray Rothbard pointed out, all banks are technically insolvent. They all lend money they don’t have. They rely on being able to borrow from other banks, the money market, or the central bank as needed to balance their books. The central bank, which has the power to print money, is the ultimate backstop in this sleight of hand and is therefore in the driver’s seat. If that source of liquidity dries up, the banks go down.

The Goldman memo warned:

The Biggest Risk is an Interruption of the Funding of Greek Banks by The ECB.

Pressing as the government refinancing schedule may look on the surface, it is unlikely to become a real issue as long as the ECB stands behind the Greek banking system. . . .

But herein lies the main risk for Greece. The economy needs the only lender of last resort to the banking system to maintain ample provision of liquidity. And this is not just because banks may require resources to help reduce future refinancing risks for the sovereign. But also because banks are already reliant on government issued or government guaranteed securities to maintain the current levels of liquidity constant. . . .

In the event of a severe Greek government clash with international lenders, interruption of liquidity provision to Greek banks by the ECB could potentially even lead to a Cyprus-style prolonged “bank holiday”. And market fears for potential Euro-exit risks could rise at that point. [Emphasis added.]

The condition of the Greek banks was not the issue. The gun being held to the banks’ heads was the threat that the central bank’s critical credit line could be cut unless financial “reforms” were complied with. Indeed, any country that resists going along with the program could find that its banks have been cut off from that critical liquidity.

That is actually what happened in Cyprus in 2013. The banks declared insolvent had passed the latest round of ECB stress tests and were no less salvageable than many other banks – until the troika demanded an additional €600 billion to maintain the central bank’s credit line.

That was the threat leveled at the Irish government before it agreed to a bailout with strings attached, and it was the threat aimed in December at Greece. Greek Finance Minister Gikas Hardouvelis stated in an interview:

The key to . . . our economy’s future in 2015 and later is held by the European Central Bank. . . . This key can easily and abruptly be used to block funding to banks and therefore strangle the Greek economy in no time at all.

Europe’s Lehman Moment?

That was the threat, but as noted on Zerohedge, the ECB’s hands may be tied in this case:

[S]hould Greece decide to default it would mean those several hundred billion Greek bonds currently held in official accounts would go from par to worthless overnight, leading to massive unaccounted for impairments on Europe’s pristine balance sheets, which also confirms that Greece once again has all the negotiating leverage.

Despite that risk, on January 3rd Der Spiegel reported that the German government believes the Eurozone would now be able to cope with a Greek exit from the euro. The risk of “contagion” is now limited because major banks are protected by the new European Banking Union.

The banks are protected but the depositors may not be. Under the new “bail-in” rules imposed by the Financial Stability Board, confirmed in the European Banking Union agreed to last spring, any EU government bailout must be preceded by the bail-in (confiscation) of  creditor funds, including depositor funds. As in Cyprus, it could be the depositors, not the banks, picking up the tab.

What about deposit insurance? That was supposed to be the third pillar of the Banking Union, but a eurozone-wide insurance scheme was never agreed to. That means depositors will be left to the resources of their bankrupt local government, which are liable to be sparse.

What the bail-in protocol does guarantee are the derivatives bets of Goldman and other international megabanks. In a May 2013 article in Forbes titled “The Cyprus Bank ‘Bail-In’ Is Another Crony Bankster Scam,” Nathan Lewis laid the scheme bare:

At first glance, the “bail-in” resembles the normal capitalist process of liabilities restructuring that should occur when a bank becomes insolvent. . . .

The difference with the “bail-in” is that the order of creditor seniority is changed. In the end, it amounts to the cronies (other banks and government) and non-cronies. The cronies get 100% or more; the non-cronies, including non-interest-bearing depositors who should be super-senior, get a kick in the guts instead. . . .

In principle, depositors are the most senior creditors in a bank. However, that was changed in the 2005 bankruptcy law, which made derivatives liabilities most senior. In other words, derivatives liabilities get paid before all other creditors — certainly before non-crony creditors like depositors. Considering the extreme levels of derivatives liabilities that many large banks have, and the opportunity to stuff any bank with derivatives liabilities in the last moment, other creditors could easily find there is nothing left for them at all.

Even in the worst of the Great Depression bank bankruptcies, said Lewis, creditors eventually recovered nearly all of their money. He concluded:

When super-senior depositors have huge losses of 50% or more, after a “bail-in” restructuring, you know that a crime was committed.

Goodbye Euro?

Greece can regain its sovereignty by defaulting on its debt, abandoning the ECB and the euro, and issuing its own national currency (the drachma) through its own central bank. But that would destabilize the eurozone and might end in its breakup.

Will the troika take that risk? 2015 is shaping up to be an interesting year.

___________

Ellen Brown is an attorney, founder of the Public Banking Institute, and author of twelve books including the best-selling Web of Debt. Her latest book, The Public Bank Solution, explores successful public banking models historically and globally. Her 200+ blog articles are at EllenBrown.com.

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All Forms of Life Are Sacred http://www.readernation.org/all-forms-of-life-are-sacred/ http://www.readernation.org/all-forms-of-life-are-sacred/#comments Thu, 29 Jan 2015 20:48:53 +0000 http://www.readernation.org/?p=5314

The battle for the rights of animals is not only about animals. It is about us. Once we desanctify animals we desanctify all life. And once life is desanctified the industrial machines of death, and the drone-like bureaucrats, sadists and profiteers who operate them, carry out human carnage as easily as animal carnage. There is a direct link between our industrial slaughterhouses for animals and our industrial weapons used on the battlefields in the Middle East.

During wars in rural societies, where the butchering of animals is intimately familiar, butchering techniques are often used on enemies. The mutilation of bodies was routine in the wars I covered in Central America, the Middle East and the Balkans. Throats were slit. Heads were cut off. Eyes gouged out. Hands severed. Genitals stuffed into victims’ mouths. Body parts such as ears and fingers were collected as souvenirs. Balkan villages, which hung slaughtered pigs by their feet from tree branches to drain the carcasses of blood and so the hair could be shaved off, on some days dangled human corpses along the roadsides. Cattle prods were a favored torture implement in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

Killing in our mechanized slaughterhouses is overseen by a tiny group of technicians. Industrial farms are factories. Machines kill the animals. And in modern warfare machines kill our enemies. Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Somalis, Yemenis are condemned, like livestock, from a distance. Hired killers push buttons. Slaughter, at home and at war, is automated. The individual is largely obsolete. The mechanization of murder is terrifying. It creates the illusion that killing is antiseptic. This illusion is sustained by state-imposed censorship that prevents us from seeing the reality of war and the reality of animal slaughterhouses. Killing has gone underground. And this has made vast enterprises of killing palatable.

I witnessed the dismembering and evisceration of human bodies during the siege of Sarajevo by the Bosnian Serbs. It was impossible not to make the link with animals. For several years after the war I would walk out of a restaurant if I saw blood pooling around a piece of rare meat on a plate. All blood is red. Hunks of meat from cattle look like hunks of human flesh. The high-pitched wail of a pig being butchered sounds like the wail of a wounded person on a battlefield.

I recently met Gary Francione, perhaps the most controversial figure in the modern animal rights movement, for lunch at the vegetarian deli of the Whole Earth Center in Princeton, N.J. With me was my wife, Eunice Wong, who was the driving force in our family’s decision last year to become vegans.

Francione is l’enfant terrible of the animal rights movement. He is a law professor and philosopher who founded, along with his partner Anna E. Charlton, the Rutgers Animal Rights Law Clinic at Rutgers School of Law. He and Charlton have five rescue dogs, all of them vegans. In his 1996 iconoclastic book “Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement” he criticized animal rights activists for refusing to challenge the idea of animals as property. Many animal rights activists call for more humane treatment of animals—leading to the conscience-soothing labels “ethically raised,” “free-range” and “cage free”—before they are slaughtered, but Francione calls this form of animal activism “tidying up the concentration camps.” He maintains that promotion of what he calls “happy exploitation” deludes consumers into believing they can exploit animals in a “compassionate” way. We have no moral right, he says, to use animals as human resources.

His position puts him at odds with nearly every animal rights group, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), as well as most of the major writers about animal rights. Theorists on animal rights such as Jonathan Safran Foer and Peter Singer believe animal rights revolve primarily around how we use animals, not whether we should use them. Francione attacks this position in his 2008 book “Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation.” His iron condemnation of all forms of violence, including by animal rights activists, has enraged militants. Like most other important moral voices, Francione stands almost completely alone.

“These are fundamental issues of justice,” he said of animal rights during our lunch. “These are fundamental issues that require that we take nonviolence seriously. You cannot speak about nonviolence and stick violence into your mouth three times a day. How many of us have grown up with a dog, a cat, a parakeet or a rabbit? Did we love those beings? Did we love them in a different way from the way we ‘loved’ our car or our stereo? Why is that love different? It is different because that is the love of an other, whether that is a human person or a nonhuman person. It is love for an other who matters morally. Did we cry when that being died? It is moral schizophrenia to treat some animals as members of our family and then roast and stick forks into other animals, which have been abused and tortured and that are no different from our nonhuman family members.”

“This is not, however, an issue about whether animals are tortured,” he went on. “The big issue now is factory farming. Do I think factory farming is bad? Well, yes, but so what? Family farms are bad as well. There is a lot of violence that happens on family farms. Consider two slaveholders—one who beats his slaves 25 times a week and the other who beats his slaves once a week. Is Slaveholder Two better? The answer is yes, but it does not address the morality of slavery.”

“It is impossible to participate multiple times a day in victimizing the vulnerable and supporting the suffering and death of sentient others for trivial reasons and not have it make a profound impact,” he said. “It means we accept the injustice of violence. It means injustice is not taken seriously. Injustice fails to motivate us. Violence works when we ‘otherize’ groups of beings and put them on the ‘thing’ side of the line between persons and ‘things.’ The paradigmatic example of this is what we do to nonhuman animals. If we stop otherizing nonhumans it becomes impossible to otherize humans.”

Francione rejects the idea that ovo-lacto vegetarianism and family farms are incremental improvements. The egg and dairy industries, he points out, are vast systems of reproductive enslavement of female animals. Laying chickens and dairy cows are abused as grievously as animals raised for meat, and usually for many more years. Once these animals are “spent” and unable to produce eggs or milk at a profitable rate, they too are slaughtered. And because it is only the females that produce milk and eggs, the dairy and egg industries early year kill approximately 250 million newborn male chicks—often ground up alive for “raw protein” used in pet food and fertilizer—and approximately 2 million male calves, used for veal.

We are told from childhood that cows “give” milk, as though needing to be milked is a cow’s natural state. “Like other female mammals, including human women, female cattle produce milk as a complex hormonal response to pregnancy and birth,” Sherry F. Colb, a former colleague of Francione’s at Rutgers, writes in “Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger?” “Dairy farmers,” Colb continues, “regularly and forcibly place each dairy cow into what is sometimes called a ‘rape rack,’ a device on which animals are restrained while they are inseminated. … If left to her own devices, the mother cow would nurse her baby for nine to 12 months. And as dairy farmers accordingly acknowledge, cows suffer tremendously when farmers take their calves away from them shortly after birth. Cows bellow, sometimes for days on end, and behave in ways that plainly exhibit desperation and misery, including a lack of interest in eating and a tendency to pace around the area where they last saw their calves. … A dairy farmer cannot make a living from this work unless he subjects a cow to pregnancy, removes her calf from her side, and then slaughters the mother cow once her milk production diminishes. These are each unavoidable aspects of dairy farming.”

“All animal agriculture involves violence, suffering and death, including the most humanely produced dairy and eggs,” Francione told us. “The male chicks are ground up alive or pounded or gassed to death. If you are a feminist and you consume dairy you are confused. One of the worst things in the world is the sound of cows when their babies are taken from them. In a conventional dairy the calves are taken away the same day or the next day. In an organic dairy, which is a supposedly higher-level animal welfare ‘happy place,’ they are taken away two or three days later. The mothers cry for days. The fact that we will take a cow with a natural life span of 30 years, impregnate her six times and take away her baby six times and kill her after she has had mastitis for five years is dreadful. This is the commodification of the reproductive processes of a female other, the commodification of a mother and her baby. The reproductive process and the relationship of a mother and her child become a product. I don’t understand how someone can say, ‘I am a feminist, but I drink milk.’ ”

Francione excoriates organic family farms that raise free-range chickens and grass-fed cattle. “The idea that loving something is consistent with killing it is not dissimilar from the man who says ‘I love my wife but I beat her a lot,’ ” he said. “I am not interested in discussions about the cruelty of factory farming. It does not matter. It is not a question of whether you go into the woods, buy a small farm and the animals come into the house at night so you can all play cards. The entire institution of animal exploitation is wrong. Our moral thinking about animals is terribly confused.”

When asked how he thought this happened, he answered: “Where we have gone wrong is our belief that because animals are cognitively different from us they have lesser moral value. They are not as cognitively sophisticated as we are—they don’t write symphonies or do calculus—so we can eat, wear and use them, as long as we do so ‘humanely.’ Most animal rights activists argue that ‘using them is not the problem, the problem is how we treat them.’ My view is that using them is the problem. It does not matter how well we treat them. Obviously, it is worse to impose more suffering than less suffering, but that does not mean it is all right to use them in a ‘humane’ way. If someone sneaks into your room while you are sleeping and blows your brains out and you do not feel a thing, you are still harmed. You may not have suffered. But you have been harmed.”

The idea that … animals [are] of lesser moral value is dangerous,” he added. “It creates hierarchies that can also be used within human communities. Once you are sentient, or are subjectively aware, you have one moral right—the right not to be used as a resource. It does not mean you get treated equally for all purposes, but it does mean you are not treated as a slave or as a commodity. A slave is excluded from the moral community. A slave has no inherent value. A slave has only external value. A slave is a thing. This is what we have done to animals. Animals are property. Animal welfare laws cannot work because they are based on balancing the interests of humans and nonhumans. As long as animals are chattel property the animal owners win. As long as animals are chattel property the standard of animal welfare will always be tied to what we need to exploit them because we will generally protect animal interests only to the extent that we get an economic benefit from doing so. Animal welfare reform, for this reason, has usually worked to make animal exploitation more economically efficient. The reason why you have the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, which requires that large animals be stunned before they are shackled and hoisted, is because if you have a 2,000-pound animal hanging upside down the cow hits workers. Workers are injured. You have carcass damage. If you look at the arguments put forward for chicken producers to switch to controlled atmosphere killing, essentially gassing, from the electrical stunning method, still widely used, those arguments—made by groups such as PETA and HSUS—are based on economic efficiency. Animal advocates are [in effect] arguing that if you gas the chickens it cuts down on carcass damage. This does not move animals out of the property paradigm. It further enmeshes them in it. It is only about efficient exploitation.”

“All of the large animal charities, such as PETA and HSUS, are businesses,” he said. “They want to maximize their donor base so they try and let everyone stay in their comfort zone. They don’t take the position that veganism is the only rationally and morally acceptable response to the recognition that animals have moral significance. They promote reform and not abolition. Unfortunately, we live in a postmodern, poststructuralist society. No one is supposed to be a moral realist. And yet we all have certain intuitions that we accept as true. We know, for example, that suffering is bad. Nobody says suffering is good, except for perhaps a masochist, but even then the masochist only embraces suffering when he or she gets pleasure from it. You can derive an enormous amount of what you need morally in the world from the simple idea that suffering is morally bad. You can’t justify doing to someone else what you would not want done to you. This is a moral truth. We all say it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering. We all agree that necessity cannot mean just pleasure. But the only justification we have for eating any animal foods is palate pleasure. We don’t need animal foods for optimal health, and animal agriculture is an ecological disaster. We criticize people like Michael Vick for inflicting unnecessary suffering on animals, but we’re all Michael Vick. Our exploitation of animals is no more necessary.”

“I worry that we have raised a generation that has not been taught to think morally,” Francione said. “Yes, my generation often thought about morality superficially. I do not want to romanticize the past. But events such as the Vietnam War forced us to ask what were we doing as a nation. We feared getting drafted, of course, but the war helped us see. It forced us to think about moral issues. But morality today has been reduced to a matter of mere opinion. This is dangerously wrong. The morality of unjustified and unjustifiable exploitation is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of moral fact.”

“There is an intimate relationship between human rights and animal rights,” said Francione, who teaches a course on human rights and animal rights with Charlton at Rutgers University. “You cannot think about this in isolation. Sexism, racism and classism are about turning others into objects. How can we talk intelligently about nonviolence when we are putting the products of violence into our mouths? We are wearing the products of violence. This is about justice. It is about justice for nonhumans, for women, for Palestinians, for African-Americans and for prisoners. Pornography represents the commodification of women. When you use pornography there is no longer a person there. There is a body part that you fetishize. The person has become a thing. You are consuming that thing. This is not all that different from going to the store and buying chicken in a Styrofoam package. The chicken is not [seen as] an animal. It is a product in Styrofoam covered with cellophane. All commodification is connected, and it’s all wrong.”

Isaac Bashevis Singer in his short story “The Letter Writer” said that human beings were Nazis to animals and had created “an eternal Treblinka” for the animal world. He, as well as writers such as Marguerite Yourcenar and J.M. Coetzee, saw in animal slaughterhouses the preliminary models for torture centers, extermination camps, genocide and war. Kazuo Ishiguro explored the idea of sentient beings raised “humanely” as commodities in his dystopian novel “Never Let Me Go,” in which cloned children, “donors,” are nurtured in special boarding schools resembling the finest private schools, but die in young adulthood when their organs are harvested for “normals”—uncloned humans.

“I believe as long as man tortures and kills animals, he will torture and kill humans as well—and wars will be waged—for killing must be practiced and learned on a small scale,” Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz wrote in his “Dachau Diaries” while he was held in that Nazi concentration camp.

“Even though the number of people who commit suicide is quite small, there are few people who have never thought about suicide at one time or another,” Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote. “The same is true about vegetarianism. We find very few people who have never thought that killing animals is actually murder, founded on the premise that might is right. … I will call it the eternal question: What gives man the right to kill an animal, often torture it, so that he can fill his belly with its flesh. We know now, as we have always known instinctively, that animals can suffer as much as human beings. Their emotions and their sensitivity are often stronger than those of a human being. Various philosophers and religious leaders tried to convince their disciples and followers that animals are nothing more than machines without a soul, without feelings. However, anyone who has ever lived with an animal—be it a dog, a bird or even a mouse—knows that this theory is a brazen lie, invented to justify cruelty. … [A]s long as human beings will go on shedding the blood of animals, there will never be any peace. There is only one little step from killing animals to creating gas chambers à la Hitler and concentration camps à la Stalin … all such deeds are done in the name of ‘social justice’. There will be no justice as long as man will stand with a knife or with a gun and destroy those who are weaker than he is.”

Originally posted at www.Truthdig.com

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